The puzzling show "Rocky" opened Thursday at the Winter Garden Theatre, both lovingly faithful to the 1976 film written by and starring Sylvester Stallone and one that seems to forget it's supposed to be a musical midway through Act II.
"Yo, Adrian." Drink.
It features a score by "Ragtime" veterans Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that's intriguing—fortified by Bill Conti's song "Gonna Fly Now" as well as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger"—but fails to really land a knockout punch. Songs like "Raining," "My Nose Ain't Broke" and "Keep on Standing" are rather lovely, but the rest of the tunes are either cookie-cutter or seem like they were simply abandoned while director Alex Timbers gleefully unpacked his cool tricks for later. And, indeed, they are cool.
The story by Thomas Meehan, who wrote "The Producers" and "Hairspray," is so faithful to the film that you can predict the next scene a mile away: Raw eggs swallowed? Check. Running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Check. Punching beef? Of course.
"Yo, Adrian." Drink.
Andy Karl, a tall bite of cheese steak, plays the over-the-hill boxer like he's doing a karaoke of Stallone, complete with tough-guy bravado, guttural Philly accent, fedora, talking to turtles—"Yo, turtles!"—and a certain mental slowness.
Margo Seibert plays Adrian as the same mousey love interest from the film, but watching her bloom and stand up for herself is a joy and you long to hear her sing more. Terence Archie is having so much fun as the deliciously cocky Apollo Creed that you might stifle the desire for him to TKO Rocky.
The sight of huge carcasses is not the type of thing that should energize a Broadway crowd, but Chris Barreca's 14 slabs of beef in a cooler are spectacular, consistent with the set designer's winning work here. The boxing gym is gritty and dark, and his digitally enhanced pet store is a feast for the eyes.
But the set's highlight is the moving boxing ring that slips up and down in Act 1 and then shoots out into the first seven rows in Act 2, complete with pop-up Jumbotron. The displaced theatergoers are invited to watch the final fight from a riser at the back of the stage.
This baffling idea means the show actually grinds to a halt so folks in the theater's most expensive seats can be ushered onstage, while worried-looking stagehands awkwardly move heavy equipment onto their old rows. At this point, "Rocky" is trying to be immersive. The cost is its soul.
"Rocky" may also be one of the first shows to reveal influence from "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Like that prior visually powerful musical, "Rocky" also has multiple Rockies running around in hooded gray sweat suits to help make montages pop, and also uses a single figure running in place as projections fly by of a gritty cityscape.
Choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine is a combustible mix of slow, balletic punches and the heady celebration of the muscular, as when a group of Rockies perform a perfectly timed punching maneuver that would make a Rockette proud. The attention to detail is impressive—there's even some dust rising from boxing gloves during the climactic fight.
Some not-so-nice touches include an overused, annoying TV camera crew to frame the buildup to the fight, and an attempt toward the end to make Rocky into a Christ-like figure, including glowing cross. ("Yo, Jesus?")
The final fight—a spectacular piece of theater, to be sure—is so lifelike that it becomes surreal. We're watching a simulated fight lifted from a fictional movie but played inside an ornate Broadway theater.
Which begs the question why this material screamed out to be a musical in the first place. The gritty, bloody world of 1970s boxing is not a natural fit for bursting into song—as some very awkward early moments in a gym here will attest. The creators seem to have acknowledged this tension and just abandoned the whole musical part. So the show ends with no rousing closing number, no speeches or dialogue, just a post-bout buzz.
And a hangover from too many "Yo, Adrians."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits